The nature of the media-military relationship is one of mutual ambivalence, suspicion and antagonism, for a variety of reasons.
The military through media eyes
by Leon Engelbrecht
March 8, 2004
A presentation to the
Joint Senior Command and Staff Duties Programme
at the SA National War College,
March 8, 2004
I`ve been asked here today to answer several questions on the media and the way we journalists see the military. It is a complex question and like all complicated enquiries it requires a simple answer. Ladies and gentlemen, as the next 60-or-so minutes will show, we have always been, and will always remain deeply ambivalent of the military. I daresay the feeling is, was and will always remain mutual.
You have asked me hear to address several points:
n Firstly, the nature of the media-military relationship;
n Secondly, the way we see the various Services in peace, war and during “OOTW”;
n Thirdly, the role of the international media – I imagine as distinct from the local media – and their interests and requirements from the military; and
n Lastly, how the media/military relationship might broadly develop as a result of experiences gained – I presume by all sides – during recent military operations.
I shall now deal with each in turn.
The nature of the media-military relationship
The nature of the media-military relationship is one of mutual ambivalence, suspicion and antagonism, for a variety of reasons. These include the fact that we mostly do not understand each other, often do not wish to associate and frequently have conflicting organisational cultures. This is not a closed list. But there currently seems to be a lack of trust between us akin to that between partners in a broken-down marriage. This is most disturbing and is very unhealthy. Neither us, nor you nor the country can afford a situation where we are your de facto enemies.
There are at least four points of view to any two-sided debate. There may be more. Take an argument between a husband and wife. There is the he-said, she-said bit, which to use Hegel`s dialectic will be our thesis and antithesis; then there is the synthesis, the view an outsider might have after listening to both parties. But is does synthesis reflect the “real” facts? What is “real”? Is it the “truth”? Is there a “truth”?
Before looking at how we view you, it may be instructive for you to have a look at us.
A look at the media
Sherman. In the 1860s US Civil War general William Sherman – he of the tank – had the correct view of the media: he threatened to have all the war correspondents in his camp shot to death if they did not leave immediately. New York Tribune war correspondent Henry Villard later wrote: “General Sherman looked upon journalists as a nuisance and a danger at headquarters and in the field, and acted toward them accordingly… I did not, of course, agree with him at that time as to my own calling, but candor constrains me to say that I had to admit in the end that he was entirely right. If I were a commanding general I would not tolerate any of the tribe within my army lines.” In this decade the US still has a correct approach to journalists: hug them to death. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Cant. When the media and military meet, it is usual for the parties to propagate the need for closer links and understanding. We often say we should all cooperate for the greater good, how we are one in a common struggle and how important openness and transparency is to good governance and democracy. This is the triumph of hope over experience. In “Open Government”, the launch episode Yes, Minister, Cabinet Secretary Sir Arnold Robinson tells a naïve private secretary that open government is a contradiction in terms. “You can be open – or you can have government.” The secretary replies that the citizens of a democracy have the right to know. Sir Arnold thinks they have a right to be ignorant. “Knowledge only means complicity and guilt. Ignorance has a certain dignity.”
Before wading further into my topic is may be prudent to first lay a foundation for what follows and to introduce you to my species…
First, a few general clichés about the media: If a specialist is someone who learns more and more about less and less, then a generalist knows a little about a great deal. A little knowledge is dangerous. Many reporters and even many assignment or news editors today know very little about the military milieu and often will not be able to tell a general from a grenade. They also cannot tell whether an operation is going well – or not. It is axiomatic if a writer does not understand the story he cannot tell it to his/her readers. Very few reporters – white or black – today have any experience of military service. At best they now see it as a peacekeeping force or at worst they see it as a police auxiliary. The situation is not necessarily better among senior journalists and editors. Likewise, the majority of the military and the public-at-large are ignorant about the actors they encounter in the media world and have little real idea of how the average newsroom functions. This can be very dangerous for all concerned. There is a romantic perception that journalists are free to choose the stories they do. That is the exception rather than the rule.
Newsrooms, like armies, are never identical. Each has its own idiosyncrasies, culture and organisation. In addition, newspaper, radio, television and wire service newsrooms are about as different as the Army, Air Force and Navy. However, the following does broadly apply: The majority of journalists are given story ideas to develop by a news or assignments editor. It is this individual, not the reporter, who decides whether there is a story to develop or not.
How much of a story gets published, the headline and the layout is again the decision of others. Generally layout- and page editors decide the layout, prominence, and perhaps, even the headline. They usually do not consult the reporter. Sub-editors also alter copy: rewriting here, slashing paragraphs there. The end product can be very different from what the reporter sent into the system!
A note on wire services. It strikes me that a few words about wire services such as Reuters, The Associated Press, AFP and my own Sapa may be in order here. If newspapers are news at the retail level, then wire services, where print, radio, television and even many businesses and the National Intelligence Agency source their news is wholesale. We generally do not sell “direct to the public”. Wire services, with particular reference to Sapa, have in my view, the following functions:
n Acting as a tip-off service to the newspapers, radio, TV and other wire services,
n Providing filler material for newspapers,
n Setting the national agenda by maintaining a national news diary,
n Covering routine events newspapers cannot cover and acting as the inland office of coastal newspapers and the coastal office of inland papers, and
n Providing newspapers alternative reports to that submitted by their own reporters and in that way providing a “reality check” to news editors.
Where the news come from. At this point perhaps a word on where the news comes from. At Sapa reporters can generate their own copy, using their own sources, but most of what they produce is not their own work. The bulk is re-written press releases sent to us by politicians, business, government departments and public relations agencies hell-bent on promoting either themselves or their clients. Most gets “spiked”, our version of “file 13.” In most newspapers, the editorial pages are filled with the writings of frustrated politicians, both within politics and working at NGOs. Some are writing as “experts” and others are providing social commentary. All of it is opinion, not news, and as Clint Eastwood memorably said, “opinions are like arseholes, everybody has one.”
How we view ourselves. Journalists love writing about themselves, and a number of journalists have lately been pontificating about the state of our trade in South Africa at D+10 years. Writing in the Sunday Times on February 22, Anton Harber, now Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits and previously editor of the Mail & Guardian, said: “The picture that is emerging of South African media 10 years into freedom is one of vibrancy, diversity and flux, with a cacophony of new voices fighting for attention from audience and advertisers alike – and many of them having moved from the social and economic fringes to the spotlight at the centre.
“We have had six new newspapers launched in the last three years, including a remarkably high-quality, top end product (ThisDay) and a Zulu paper (Isolezwe), reversing the pattern of the first few years of democracy when smaller, alternative voices closed one after the other,” he added. “We have about six times more radio stations than a decade ago, about 18 times more television channels (albeit mostly by subscription only) and nobody knows quite how many more magazines. But more noise and clutter does not necessarily mean more quality. The fact is that all these new outlets are competing for an advertising pie that has shrunk or barely grown, particularly in the last year or two.
“This is a global phenomenon, and the consequence has been the steady shrinking of newsrooms and journalism resources, the trivialisation of news and the triumph of entertainment and advertising over journalism,” he continued. “It is felt no less in this country, particularly since Gauteng has an oversupply of newspapers. Business Day has 32 fewer journalists than it had two years ago. Independent Newspapers is doing more and more group sharing of editorial resources, which has the effect of homogenising their papers across the country.” Have you noticed?
“Specialist reporters are fewer, and that means that quality, in-depth, analytic writing is becoming less authoritative,” he added. Newsrooms are run by younger, less-experienced journalists who are expected to churn out a lot more material than they were a decade ago. This accounts for much of the trouble journalists have run into in the past few months: Darrel Bristow-Bovey turned out to be not so much a columnist as a highly paid copy typist; Ranjeni Munusamy was meant to work her sources and instead appears to have worked for them; and City Press’ Vusi Mona was spending his time looking after everyone’s public relations except his own. Where our newspaper industry was dominated by four companies a decade ago – two English, two Afrikaans – we are down to two, with Naspers and the Independent group commanding about 70% of the advertising, audience and titles. Who would have thought that, after a decade of freedom, our media would be dominated by a traditionally Afrikaans giant and an Irish-owned monolith?” Who indeed…
Trade or profession? Journalists always portray themselves as “professionals”. While there has always been a debate whether journalism is a trade or a profession, the Department of Labour lumped journalists and editors under the rubric “associate professionals” for Employment Equity purposes. I always advise my colleagues that before getting on their high horse about that description they should consider that the expectation that we should act professionally does not make us “professional.” We should also be cautious what we ask for – government may give it to us. While not a definitive characteristic, one aspect of most professions is the requirement to be registered with a professional body before being legally allowed to practice. These bodies often also have a disciplinary function. Journalists tend to have an allergic reaction to the idea. Howls of protest greeted Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s comment in early February 2004 that she did not understand how the registration of the media by the government in Zimbabwe could interfere with their duties. Business Day on February 25 summed up the registration debate quite nicely: “The debate about registration makes a mistake each time it starts and that is to assume a journalist can be registered in the same way that a doctor or lawyer might be, so that some self-regulating but state recognised body is able to stop one practicing one`s craft. But that is the problem. Journalism isn`t a profession. It is a trade, a craft, like plumbing or carpentry. It is largely unregulated because there is nothing to regulate. Journalists do not have clients or patients and hold no one`s money or health in trust. The one thing that humans value that journalists can damage is reputation, and there the laws of libel, and even criminal libel, apply as perfectly adequate means of control. The relatively recent arrival of the academic qualification of journalism should not detract from the essence of the craft. The journalism degree, nowhere, can reasonably be said to confer the status of journalist upon the holder.”
A duty to…what or whom? There is a view that the media is unpatriotic, destructive, negative and a danger to national security. Holders of this view insist the media have a duty to be positive, constructive and patriotic. When asked to articulate what they mean, they generally say they don`t want reports of the type generally found in the Afrikaans daily, Beeld. They firmly believe the newspaper has a grudge against the SA National Defence Force in general and black military personnel in particular. The Beeld can defend itself against these charges and does not need my assistance.
But a number of important points need to be clarified here. The Independent Group`s Peter Sullivan is adamant that journalists and their newspapers owe no one a duty to report in the public interest – or anything else. I agree. The SANDF has a duty to defend the country. A duty imposed by the Constitution and the Defence Act. Nowhere is such a duty or like obligation placed upon the media. Sullivan correctly says our job, our sole duty is to make the “best stab at the truth in the time available” to us when compiling our reports.
It is true that the job of our managers is to make money for their shareholders and owners. And it is also true that one way of making money, other than increasing sales or advertising, is cutting costs. As a result, journalists have to do more and more with ever less resources. Many newspapers have become little more than advertising delivery vehicles. Once upon a time newspapers may have primarily delivered information to their readers, but today they increasingly profit only their owners. A senior officer on a Executive National Security Programme in 2004 called me a liar for saying this, so I`ll here quote onetime Vrye Weekblad editor Max du Preez in my defence. He last month told the Cape Town Press Club editors were no longer editors – instead they were part of management. I agree. “They get rewarded for making money. That division between state and church, between editor and management, has disappeared. Editors have become capitalists… Now we have making money as the first concern, not journalism as the first concern,” he added.
This raises another point. There is a feeling that criticism of the present government is unpatriotic. It is pointed out that the media, in particular the Afrikaans press, slavishly supported the pre-1994 government. As a consequence, its temerity in questioning the post-1994 is now resented. I understand the feeling and see where it comes from. Yes, some editors who were uncritical in the past are overcompensating in the present, but beware of confusing being critical with criticism. I firmly believe a patriotic media is a critical media. The Oxford English Dictionary defines patriots as people who vigourously support their country and are prepared to defend it. Note that “country” and “government” is not the same. Note also that one interpretation of patriotism in this country prior to 1990 was defending the country against the government of that time. Note further that I may be using “critical” in a novel way here, as a synonym for “objective” and “detached.” The OED defines a critic as “a person who expresses an unfavourable opinion” and criticism as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.” We read “critical” as evaluating someone or something in a detailed, detached, dispassionate, objective and fair manner in order to put before the reader both the merits and demerits of the subject.
Lastly, beware of seeing the media as a single entity. We are no more a single organism than humanity is. The word media is a collective noun, like “animal.” In the media, like the animal kingdom, we have both hissing snakes and cuddly lambs. There are good papers and journalists, and bad ones. We can say the same of the officer`s corps and the military. There are those who walk their talk and some that only talk the walk.
“Experts”. Perhaps the only thing more dangerous than an ill-informed, inexperienced journalist is the self-appointed “expert” who advises him. How often have you seen warmed-over news reports from the last few days pass as “analysis” by some policy pundit followed by a weather forecast conclusion so full of hedged bets and qualifications as to be useless to you?
The real versus the ideal: As senior officers you do not have the luxury of the ideal. Just the reality of an imperfect media.
The media as a terrain of struggle
James F Dunnigan, author of How To Make War, a book that claims to be a comprehensive guide to modern warfare in the 21st Century says “the mass media helps create and perpetuate many myths. Often the appointed experts are equally ill informed… Real warfare is ugly, destructive and remembered fondly only by those who survived it without getting too close.” To which one may add Desiderius Erasmus` (1469-1536) motto – Dulce Bellum Inexpertis – War is delightful (only) to the inexperienced.
A battlefield of competing ideas. The media is a terrain of struggle, a battlefield of competing ideas. Journalists and the military from time to time also have ideas and where these conflict, personal and professional clashes result. Journalists often have an exaggerated view about the role of the Fourth Estate – as we like to call ourselves – and make impossible demands upon the military. We also have a habit of being very fickle. This tends to irritate you. On the other hand, you correctly see us as a vehicle to convey information to your target audiences, including potential enemies and allies, the government and Parliament, and the public at large. Sometimes you have a strategy that involves us unwittingly or otherwise in what you would call “information warfare”. That tends to irritate us.
A favourable public rating. There is nothing wrong with you wanting a favourable public rating. The Department of Defence `s Strategic Plan for Financial Years 2002/3 to 2004/5 makes the point that the DoD, as a “contingency-based organisation,” does not render a direct service to the public in the tangible way that departments dealing with housing, health and water do. Elsewhere, the document points out that “(a)s a result of the nature of defence the outcome of defence and the outputs of defence are not highly visible during times of peace and are taken for granted. This has led to spending on defence being questioned, as the utility of the defence expenditure is not always obvious in peace time.” It continues: “Defence leaders have to be sensitive to popular sentiment and ensure that the contribution of defence towards the general well-being is well publicised and that every Rand is spent wisely to ensure that the citizens of South Africa continue to support the Defence Force.”
This is not just a South African phenomenon. Writing mostly with the US military in mind, Dunnigan notes: “Doctrine is the plan, reality is the performance. Most nations` military planning rests on their own appraisals of their own military ability. This appraisal reaches a low point just before arms budgets are voted on and rises swiftly during international crises and reelection campaigns. When actual warfare approaches, the military becomes more realistic.” He adds: “Armed forces exist primarily, or at least initially, for self-defence. Some nations go overboard, and some feel the best way to defend against a real or imagined attack is to attack it. Armed forces also serve as one more bargaining chip in a state`s international diplomacy. If war comes, the armed forces have failed in their primary purpose: to appear too strong to be successfully attacked. Therefore armed forces pay a lot of attention to appearing strong. If substance is sacrificed to enhance apparent strength, why not? An apparently stronger armed force is more valuable than a less capable appearing one.” No wonder you get so annoyed when we wrote there were only four tanks running in the SA Army in 2002. You may also understand our irritation at being publicly rubbished as “irresponsible” after finding out although there are indeed several hundred tanks in store and a few dozen in use, there was at that time only enough money to run four of the 30 operational tanks at any given time over a 12-month period. What we said was true – from a certain point of view. But it did not help you project the image of the SANDF though!
An idealistic view of the media as a information conduit for the military. Recent editions of two prominent US defence publications called the media the single most important channel between the military and the public (my emphasis) – and by extension the national legislature: the US Congress there, the South African Parliament here. Writing in Armor, Captain Jeffrey Nors said a strong military is a pillar of democracy, as is the media. “The media inform the very people who pay our salaries, own our equipment and help form the opinions of the parents whose sons and daughters they entrust to us. For a significant portion of this nation, the media is their only link to the military. The American people are our higher headquarters, and the media is our radio.” In his article in the Marine Corps Gazette, Lt Col Stephen G Brozak, USMCR, called the media a conduit to the people – “the device by which we explain who we are and what we do.” Very flattering… And true – from a certain point of view. But should the media be this? And how does it affect our much-valued independence?
Dunnigan observes that war “isn`t what it used to be before radio and television. Because of instant media, public opinion guides military decisions far more than in the past.” It may be best for us to stay wary of each other…
The consequences of us embracing can be quite lethal for all concerned. Hundreds of Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots died in the period 1939-1942 while Bomber Command sought to prove its pre-war theory, swallowed whole by the media and the pundits of that day, that the bomber would always get through. Entire raids were shot down because the RAF had believed its own propaganda and no one had disabused them of their beliefs. “The RAF`s misfortune was that it had believed its own publicity. For twenty years it luxuriated in the conviction ‘We are, ergo we are capable of a strategic bombing offensive,” Max Hastings wrote in Bomber Command.
Being to cosy with the media can also cause nasty shocks to the political system. Imagine the shock Winston Churchill received when his French counterpart Paul Reynaud phoned him crying in June 1940 saying, “We are defeated.” Up to that moment Winston had believed the prevailing wisdom – that France had the most powerful army in Europe.
Information warfare. Dunnigan notes that information warfare is one of those “new flavours” that is difficult to describe accurately because it means different things to different people. “to military communications people, it means keeping the many military networks (both intranet and wireless) safe from enemy interference. At the same time, the military hackers strive to figure out ways to crash or listen to enemy networks. To the psychological-warfare crew, it means getting a favourable spin on information about an ongoing war. Information war means all of these things, as well as the traditional art of deception.” These, include, on the “real” battlefield, camouflage, concealment, ruses, displays, demonstrations and feints. In the media sphere they include false and planted information, lies and insight.”
“Saddam Hussein used the media as a major military weapon during the 1991 Gulf War. Knowing how quickly the American public would see video of any battlefield action, he tried to arrange for enough American casualties so that a public uproar in the United States would cause an American withdrawal,” Dunnigan adds. “Saddam got plenty of media play before the American attack began in January 1991. But he was outsmarted, and the attack on the Iraqis resulted in minimal American casualties: fewer that 300 deaths, unprecedented for an operation involving half a million troops. This had an unexpected side effect: the American public promptly decided this was a new development in warfare and that all future American military operations should have equally low casualties.
This posed a problem. The Iraq operation had taken place under unique conditions that, in the past, had also resulted in low casualties. Ever since World War II, if you fought in the desert and had control of the air, you were likely to win with very few casualties. The British won a similar victory against the Italians under similar conditions in 1941. But 24-hour television networks did not cover those battles. In 1941, the generals explained how they won and why, and the newspapers reported that. In 1991, there were hundreds of experts (some real, some just glib). Since “all the news all the time” television demanded dramatic statements, the concept that bloodless warfare was at hand was jumped on big time. No amount of sober statements from military experts could contradict this meaningless bit of analysis.”
For those who remember, Dunnigan is here writing about the stunning victory of “Wavell`s 30,000” over a vastly larger Italian force at Beda Fomm, near Benghazi in Libya. A similar one-sided victory was the shoe-string British invasion of (surprise, surprise) Iraq, the same year, to oust a pro-fascist dictator and install their own.
Dunnigan notes that the Somalis, Serbs, North Koreans, and many others have adopted information war tactics. “They work,” he laconically adds. A battle between US Rangers and Somali militiamen in 1993 resulted in 100 American casualties and more than 1,500 Somali losses. “The Rangers wanted to go back in and follow up their victory. But by the next day they, and the Somalis, saw that the American news media had declared it an American defeat because there were more than a few US casualties.”
The military and its industrial complex is not the only practitioners of information warfare. Dunnigan points out that NGOs use it too, and often the victims are the military. As an example he cites the 1997 treaty to ban antipersonnel mines (APM). “What was unique about the campaign to ban land mines was the skillful use of misinformation, lies, and rewriting of history to get the treaty signed.” He points out that the basic premise used by campaigners was that APM have no military usefulness and are used primarily against innocent civilians. Mines were used in volume during World War Two not because generals were sadists but because they saved lives. After that conflict, however, mines often became a political weapon. Most mines used against civilians are intended to terrorise them into supporting the guerillas or not supporting the government. “This was not brought out during the anti-mine crusade because it did not fit the mind-set of the crusaders, who sought to pin the blame on the nations providing most of the mines,” he writes. Most of the countries that afterwards signed were nations that either had no mines or were not keen to use what they had. “But on the negative side, the nations that did sign the treaty will, when they send their soldiers into some future war, lose more of those troops for the want of mines.” He predicts mines will be back, perhaps under another name, very quickly when reports citing their need come from the front. “But many of their citizens in uniform will die needlessly in the meantime.” A final point is that the anti-mine enthusiasts made up many of the statistics they quoted, such as that more than 100-million mines were in use and that 25,000 people were being injured each year. The figures were invented because most of those making and laying the mines were – and remain – disinclined to release accurate figures. Campaigners claimed there were up to 35 million mines in Afghanistan alone. Deminers on the spot now estimate the number at 600,000. So if you have to estimate, and you are an issue-driven NGO, guestimate in your own favour.
Says Dunnigan: The anti-mine activists knowingly used information warfare to achieve their goals… If you have a cause that is generally considered worthy and are willing to lie, cheat and deceive to achieve your goal, information warfare is the way to go.
The Services in war, “peace” and “OOTW”
In broad brush-strokes, the way the media sees the military predictably varies depending on the situation. In war, the view is largely uncritical, servicemen are heroes and generals saviours. Come peace, the military is just another government department in fancy-dress and any money spent on defence is begrudged. “Operations other than war” is an “either-or”, “neither-nor” sort of thing. Media opinion regarding OOTW is influenced by factors such as cost, casualties and the importance attached to the peacekeeping or peace enforcement mission concerned. Sometimes it is also a case of “if you`re going to have soldiers you can just as well put them to work at something useful.” It is, of couse debatable how “useful” some of this work is.
Journalists see war as a once-in-a-life opportunity to become famous. Aspirant journalists see few activities as glamorous as covering a conflict. Students, who ordinarily refuse to read anything, devour books by “war correspondents.” Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva`s
The Bang Bang Club (Basic Books, 2000) is almost compulsory reading. So journalists, particularly photographers, are naturally keen to get to the front to get where the action is. “They” want you to help them, “they” want you to protect them and “they” don`t want you to get in the way. When you do, because “they” are acting recklessly or stupidly, “they” cry censorship. And “they” over-compensate. The only way to avoid being called your lackey is to accentuate the negative.
More on this topic later.
The purpose of armed forces in peace is to prepare for war. I believe this. You believe this. Dunnigan believe this. Even the Romans believed this. The media doesn`t. After all, the military absorbs considerable sums of money in return for an intangible and often-debatable degree of national security. There is no way, short of a war, for the military to prove that it is doing its job adequately, says Dunnigan. But who wants that?
In the 1970`s slogans replaced common sense. “For the last thirty years, it has become fashionable to believe that soldiers are just another bunch of civil servants and that they should behave like civilians,” Dunnigan says. “For the last century, more and more people in uniform were doing civilian-type jobs, so it seemed reasonable to expect civilian-type behaviour.”
Turning civilians into soldiers has always been a tricky process. Men who prepare for combat are also prone to do some strange things. For thousands of years this odd behaviour was ignored, but no more.
It is an axiom that the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. This means tough basic and advanced training and serious attention to discipline and standards. Then comes the media. Some recruits complain about the “brutality” of training, the media does a story or two about “needless stress” and standards get cut. After all, the reasoning goes, only about one in ten recruits will ever be in a post that could expose them to combat and in peacetime the possibility of conflict is always more distant than the threat of media and political scrutiny and a career-ending scandal. So a combination of ignorance and nonchalance creates an attitude that considers as overkill the rigors of effective training. Until the body bags come home.
A convenient whetstone. Since the end of the Cold war, the public has generally become apathetic of defence matters and the mainstream media has responded by assigning defence stories to junior reporters. As a consequence the mainstream media and academic think tanks see the military as a convenient whetstone on which to grind other axes. Little interested in the subject most newspapers and broadcasters see defence as a prime hunting ground for signs of impropriety and corruption. Journalism, a satirist once said, is about finding problems, not solutions. A good example of this was the furore surrounding the government’s Strategic Defence Package. Despite much smoke little fire has been found. Now that the Rand has rebounded one also hears little about the cost of the programme. While our currency was plummeting some were predicting the direst outcomes, arguing the cost could escalate to as much as R267-billion from R30-billion in 1999.
The mainstream media’s primary objective is the “scoop” or the placing of controversial items that generate sequels, public excitement and ultimately more sales – not only of the paper but of advertising in it, for it is there that the profit lies. Of course, the fourth estate is unlikely to admit to this. Media bosses and editors will always respond at this juncture that their are merely fulfilling their mandate as society’s watchdog. Of course they are, but at a price… and for a profit!
Magic wands. Politicians and government officials also have a use for defence acquisitions – deflecting attention from military unpreparedness. “Readiness is like the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it,” Dunnigan argues.
When danger looms politicians sometimes have to create the appearance of action. It is the old “form over substance” trick. Sir Humphrey, Sir Arnold`s replacement in Yes, Prime Minister put it like this: “BW believes that the purpose of our defence policy is to defend Britain. Clearly in this modern world this is an impossibility. Therefore, the only purpose of our defence policy is to make people believe that Britain is defended. Some advocates of the deterrent theory understand this, but they assume that our defence policy is designed to make the Russians believe that we are defended. This is absurd. Our policy exists to make the British believe Britain is defended — the Russians know its not. Our defence policy is therefore designed to impress all those simple ignorant British citizens who shuffle in and out of houses, buses, pubs, factories and the Cabinet Room. We are trying to make them feel secure. BW and the PM (Prime Minister) are seeking a better way, which is doubtless thoroughly laudable. But the very words ‘better way` imply change, always a most dangerous notion. At the moment we have a magic wand. It is called Trident. No one understands anything about it except that it will cost £15 billion, which means that it must be wonderful. Magical! We just have to write the cheque, and then we can all relax. But if people in the government start talking about it, eventually they will start thinking about it. Then they will realise the problems, the flaws in the reasoning. Result: the nation gets anxious.” Perhaps this is why Minister Lekota declared the season closed for open government.
OOTW is glorified guard duty – and about as exciting. In peacetime, guard duty is often handed out as punishment. Endless peacekeeping duty, with abuse from ungrateful foreigners thrown in for good measure, undermines morale. It makes troops less than ready for combat duty and risks their lives for political correctness. Rules of engagement (ROE) are not unknown in wartime, but are meant as guidelines that can be modified, as the situation requires. Not so during OOTW… Strict adherence is required – sometimes with fatal consequences for the troops concerned. A few examples: The US Marines in Beirut in 1983 operated under ROE that prohibited even self-defence. As a result nearly 250 died in a suicide truck bombing. In Rwanda, in 1994, Belgian paratroopers under UN command were allowed arms, but not ammunition. As a result 10 were hacked to death with machetes. It was the same aboard the USS Cole in October 2000. Armed guards with unloaded rifles. Very sporting to the al-Qaeda suicide bombers who proceeded to kill 17 of her crew in Aden harbour. This obsession with ROE is in part our fault. But I charge that not standing up to the media and press-sensitive politicians and stating that ROE is not worth the life of one Hessian grenadier, as the saying goes, is yours.
Contributing troops to peacekeeping looks good and – if you can get the UN to deliver – pays well. What is often forgotten is that in OOTW you are not dealing with war, but disorder. You are not dealing with soldiers but armed gangsters.
“Much of what we currently call war is merely well-armed disorder… This is an important distinction, as a great deal of military skill is not needed to create armed disorder. You don`t need trained troops to create a proper insurrection or civil war. All you need are angry people and some weapons,” Dunnigan observes. “A war is fought to a conclusion. Disorders may go on for years, decades, or centuries.” In other words, they can be peacekeeping-proof. But this often seems not matter to the alternative dispute resolution evangelists that populate many NGOs and enjoy writing opinion pieces in the press. For them a military solution to conflict is per se bad. It is a case of negotiated settlement “über alles“. Not for them questions like what a peacekeeper should do with rebels whose regular business is drug or diamond smuggling. Not for them the conundrum of ending a civil war where the primary issue is control of the local tanzanite reserves or hard wood forests. South Africa`s insistence that Angola`s MPLA settle the country`s civil war with UNITA this way is one reason for our current cold relations. Angola`s military persevered and in the end beat warlordism out of UNITA.
Dunnigan comments on this. “Modern warlords are clever fellows and, like their ancient predecessors, dream up new scams to suit current conditions.” He suggests they know how to work the media, humanitarian aid organisations and NGOs. They know how to work clueless peacekeepers and whatever passes for central government in their part of the world – or how to get the media, humanitarian aid organisations and NGOs to do it for them.
The role of the international media,
their interests and requirements
I am somewhat hard-pressed to answer this question as I see little difference in the role and interests of the local versus international media. I can say the role of the local media will always be to tell the “South African story to South Africans.” The international media, whether here or in the Great Lakes region have as mandate explaining us and our fellow Africans to their home audiences, often in through non-African eyes. Its for this reason that the local representative of The Times of London recently went to live in a shack in Diepsloot for a week and traveled to the Cape to write a feature on a wine cellar owned by former farm labourers.
The issue of interests I have already dealt with when speaking about the tension between news and profit and the issue of requirements I`ll be dealing with next.
They can, however be summarised as access, security and logistics. Access to your troops… Access to the battlefield or your base… Access to information… Security of person from harm. Access to logistic support and amenities.
How the media/military relationship might broadly develop as a result of result of experiences gained during recent military operations
A number of conflicts must be considered under this rubric. Starting with the World Wars, there are Korea, VietNam, the Falklands (1982), Grenada (1983), South Africa`s 1966-1990 Border war, the internal conflict here from 1961 to 1994, subsequent support by the SANDF to the SA Police Service, Operation Boleas in Lesotho, Operations Fibre in Burundi and Mistral in the DR Congo. Then there is also Gulf War I, NATO operations in Bosnia and Kosovo and US operations in Afghanistan (2000 onwards) and last year`s Gulf War II. I can talk about them all, but I suspect you are more interested in the concept of “embedded” journalists and whether we in the media think it will work.
At this point a crucial distinction must be made. “Embedding” takes some time and trouble to accomplish and is therefore a “hostilities only” arrangement during a general war. Examples are the World Wars, Korea and Gulf War II. It was not used in Vietnam because, technically, the US was not at war with the Democratic People`s Republic in the north and as a guest of the government in the south felt itself unable to prescribe rules – a situation it came to regret. Control over the media before, and since, has been the norm.
The US approach to the media in war, peace & OOTW
The primary requirement the US armed services have for information it issues is that it be accurate and consistent. It should also be prompt — whether it concerns a peacekeeping mission, a training exercise gone wrong or details of the repatriation of the dead. As General George S Patton said, the best is the enemy of the good. A good answer now is better than a perfect answer next week. He was actually talking about plans, but it`s the same when dealing with the media.
Where information is withheld, speculation is rife, several guidelines consulted say. Speculation is seldom accurate and can seriously damage a military image and public sentiment. In the field it can undermine operations and troop morale. If the information is not immediately available or in the process of being collated, say so.
Security considerations should not be used to sensor stories that might be embarrassing or negative. “The public, the troops and the media deserve honest responses to media queries, even if the news is unfavourable to the operation,” one source said. If security is not compromised, then there is little cause to withhold information.
Credibility is critical to the success of a media liaison officer/Public Affairs Officer (PAO). “If caught deceiving the press, credibility cannot be recovered. One doesn’t lie just once. The lie is on the news shows many times, in different editions of the newspapers, and rerun as much as the news outlets desire. The lie is world-wide and instantaneous.” And: “A PAO distrusted by the media has no future, his utility will be short-lived. “A reporter’s view of a situation doesn’t have to be true, but becomes true if so perceived.”
Despite a sometimes antagonistic relationship, the United States’ armed services realise that, like it or not, the media is there and will report on their activities. “That a reporter is ignorant of what you do, or the rules under which you operate, makes him or her no less interested. And, in any event, that reporter is going to convey something to the public.” A reporter covering, but ignorant of the military can be an irritation, requiring the expenditure of valuable time to explain basic concepts. However, “it’s far better. to view this journalist as a piece of moldable putty upon whom the (military) will make a lifelong impression… No matter what it takes, it is incumbent on every (soldier, sailor, airman) to provide the access, candour, and insights necessary to produce an honest portrayal,” a US Marine Corps publication says.
OPSEC and mutual convenience. That sorted, the issues remaining are operational security (“OPSEC”) and mutual convenience: there have been many attempts over the years at resolving these to all’s satisfaction. In broad brush-strokes, reacting to alleged over-control during World Wars One & Two and Korea, the US let go in Vietnam. Stung by the reporting of that conflict, the US military tightened up in the 1980’s. The British, having learned from their many conflicts and from the American experience did likewise during the Falklands War. Both drew heavy fire for this and relaxed in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War. Afterwards, they drew more flak. The pooling system employed did not agree with the media and the perception was that journalists had been hijacked and were shown only what the allied military wanted them to see. In other words, they felt stage-managed.
US Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.3, Marine Corps Public Affairs, reminds that when the Allies landed on France in the Normandy invasion of 1944, fewer than 30 reporters were with them. By comparison, more than 500 journalists and technicians were on the scene within hours of the beginning of combat operations in both Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. In 1991, more than 1,600 members of the news media gathered in the Persian Gulf to cover the war against Iraq. By then, typewriters had given way to laptop computers, minicams, digital tape recorders, and satellite phones. Coverage was live from anywhere around the globe. Additionally, the advent of 24-hour news networks brought about a need for news reports to fill broadcasts and led to increased competition for stories.
Embedding. When last year’s Gulf War became inevitable, the US decided to “embed” journalists with front-line combat units rather than face that charge again. About 500 to 600 journalists were “embedded” in this fashion. As such they were assigned to operational units before the invasion began and were expected to accompany them for the duration of the conflict. Other journalists were accredited with various headquarters in Kuwait, Bahrain, London and Washington. Hundreds more roamed behind the frontlines at their own recognisance — and risk.
“Embedding,” by the way, is a Marine term. Marine Corps Public Affairs, published in 2000, explains it so: “The most effective operational public affairs effort is predicated on taking the news media to where there is action. Let reporters go smell it, touch it, and talk to people on the ground. This will help the news media develop a much better appreciation for Marines and their mission. The Marine Corps` best messengers are Marines talking about the Marines they lead or the job they do. Commanders should encourage their Marines to talk to the news media whenever and wherever possible about what they do. Marines can tell the Marine Corps` story better than any chart, graph, or press release.”
“Historically, the Marine Corps has endorsed and benefited from the practice of embedding (Italics added) news media into the force, adopting reporters as honorary members of a particular unit. This alternative to pooling fosters mutual trust and understanding. Some reporters who are eager to become better educated about the military see embedding as an unparalleled opportunity. They realise that reporters who are truly part of an operational unit may garner the ultimate front-row seat. Embedding raises the reporter`s awareness level and reduces errors in reporting. An embedded reporter should, ideally, come to see himself as part of the Marine team. Furthermore, informed reporters are less likely to violate security guidelines. Because the reporters themselves are in harm`s way, along with the Marine unit to which they are assigned, they have a vested interest in complying with security concerns,” the manual continues.
Embedding news media is never a sure thing. Commanders must realise that risk is involved. Overall, embedding has been a positive experience for the Marine Corps. During Desert Storm, this policy benefited both the news media and the Marine Corps. Unlike many units from other Services, the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) allowed coverage of the MEF and in return reached a worldwide audience. News media coverage will help shape the perception of future operations. The news media will get there, with or without the Marine Corps` assistance, in many cases, well before the Marines` arrival. Forward-thinking commanders will use innovative and creative ways to educate and assist news media located in theatre, whether or not a pool is in place. PAOs should accurately apprise staffs that they should anticipate news media presence and assist the commander in determining the best way to assist reporters,” the manual adds.
By most accounts the system worked well for both sides. Geert Linnebank, editor-in-chief of Reuters, in March 2003 said he was unrepentant in his decision to “embed” at least 30 reporters and camera crew with coalition forces. Writing in the March 30, 2003 edition of the South African Sunday Times, he made the following comparison: “Under enemy fire, Reuters reporter and future editor Doon Campbell waded ashore with the British Royal Marine Commandos. The opposing artillery put down a firestorm as the troops inched forward from the blood-soaked beach. Crouched in a ditch, the 24-year-old typed his first dispatch as medics treated the wounded around him. The year was 1944 and Doon was witness to the beginning of the D-Day landing. Writing afterwards, he recalled: ‘The only thing that mattered to me at that moment was the story. The news – how to convey even a tiny detail of this mighty mosaic – transcended everything.’ Doon was one of the journalists who was ’embedded’ with Allied units. They slept, washed, ate and worked alongside the Allied troops as they took on the Nazis. The results were some of the most compelling first-hand accounts of modern warfare. Move forward 60 years and, as the US and the UK wage war in Iraq, the technique of ’embedding’ has been resurrected. Swop the Normandy beaches for the deserts and the mud flats of Mesopotamia.”
So criticism and terminology aside, “embedding” is not new. Like many other American neologisms, it’s simply a new way to describe something familiar.
Much of the criticism directed at “embedding” was, frankly, ill-informed or came from those, both inside and outside the media industry who were opposed to the Anglo-American action in Iraq. “Embed” conveniently became “in bed”, the eyewitness reporter an unscrupulous media whore. Tawane Kupe, a senior lecturer and head of the media studies programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, was one such critic. He described “embedded” journalism thus in the same edition of the Sunday Times: “The apparent ingenuity of the scheme — not to mention its improper name — will remain a talking point in news, journalism and media critiques for years to come. In very simple terms, embedding is an attempt to censor journalists while appearing to give them unprecedented access. It is designed to ensure journalists, directly or in the broadest possible terms, report the war from the point of view of the US and its coalition of invaders.”
That may be, but the attempt would be unlikely to succeed. Kupe forgot that wars end and censor go home. War correspondents then produce books to complement their initial reporting. Linnebank conceded that an “embedded correspondent is a part of the war effort.” Linnebank continues: “Even where a reporter resolves to be detached, the fellowship of the battlefield can influence his or her dispatches. If you share a foxhole with a US or a British marine, he is your buddy. The incoming artillery belongs to the foe. Comrades become heroes. You demonise the enemy. Embed as many as 500 journalists within an army — as the Pentagon has done in Iraq — and this effect may well be magnified. There is another peril, too, that goes beyond being a part of a political attempt to rally public opinion. The experienced war correspondent knows that he cannot “read the battle” from the front lines. He is not there to file in-depth analysis but to send what the trade calls the “colour”, as often as not fragmentary and in itself perhaps misleading. Rocket-propelled grenades are so noisy that by night a skirmish might sound like Armageddon.”
“I acknowledge the right of an army to exploit the media to confuse the enemy. It is our job not to fall for it. I do therefore share a concern that, with so many reporters deployed in Iraq, some of them novices in the art of reporting warfare, our profession might be at greater threat than usual of being a channel for disinformation…”
“Embedding with combat units is better than being taken to the front in a ‘pool’ to be shown selected scenes. The news executive either buys the deal or misses the action. Once he’s bought it, however, he must offset the downside. He has to brief his team. And he wants to ensure that he deploys some roaming reporters to try to balance, if not verify, what the “embeds” are saying. He also needs a vigilant and skeptical editing desk supported by specialist writers,” Linnebank continued. Amen!
Linnebank added that a number of the journalists killed in Iraq were not “embedded.” “In all wars, correspondents have often elected to ride to battle with a regular military unit, or with the best-disciplined of the irregulars. Then they may at least hope to know where the forward perimeters are. Nobody pretends that journalists are safe if they are embedded, but I do have an added worry that the need to verify may impose an extra risk of ambush and crossfire on those who are not,” he cautioned.
Another critique came from the editor of the Marine Corps Gazette. Remember my concern about the “talking heads?” In his July editorial, Colonel John P Glasgow, Jr, USMC (Ret) slammed not embedded reporters, but news anchors and pundits “embedded” in their newsrooms. “The continuing danger here is that spin from agenda-driven commentators can force perceptions to become reality,” Glasgow wrote. “Embedded journalists were basically good for the lower echelons of the fighting forces. But at the national levels of print and broadcast journalism there were forces at play to distort reality. We saw it in a damning fit of pique ranting about practices at MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force) and division levels of command. We saw it all over Baghdad with the most egregious coverage concerning the looting of the museum, with journalists not telling the truth, and with national television prompter readers proclaiming the military had lost control in Baghdad.”
Yes, the reports were exaggerated – the bulk of items missing from museums had been hidden by staff in the desert before the war and was recovered. The little that was looted was also mostly returned to the musea in a few weeks. And the US military had not “lost” control – they never had it in the first place.
So, what now?
What do we make of this? Clearly, embedding has numerous advantages for both the media and the military – but also some disadvantages. Like live, these are not necessarily evenly divided and prone to change from time to time and place to place.
Having been on both sides of the fence myself, both as a journalist and as an infantry officer with a front-line unit, I recognise the over-riding importance of OPSEC during actual operations. The reporter’s life is at stake too. And the old adage is that no story is worth a human life. Linnebank added that embedded Reuters reporters were remarkably free to file — subject to guidelines not to detail tactical deployments or specific troop numbers, or identify casualties before next-of-kin have been informed. Vietnam veterans told him that they followed a similar code of practice — not to file when to do so might endanger lives or add to grief. Surely, there can be no disputing that?
Mutual convenience is important too. The need of reporters to “taste” all there is to experience and the need of news organisations to reflect a “slice of all the action” must be tempered with the safety of reporters and the forces they accompany as well as the ability of those forces to provide the freedom of movement reporters might seek. Veteran US newscaster, Walter Cronkite, flew on bomber missions over Germany during World War Two, while with United Press International, parachuted with airborne units and was at the “Battle of the Bulge.” Combat units generally do not have spare personnel or vehicles to assign to battlefield tourists. If you are to accompany a combat unit will generally be on their terms – and as a journalist and a Reserve officer I see nothing wrong with that. Neither does Dunnigan.
For the Military
· The media better appreciates the military and their mission.
· Enhanced mutual trust and understanding.
· OPSEC violations less likely.
For the military
· Not a “sure thing.”
· The reporter is there to see and report your mistakes in tactics, operations and strategy.
· The reporter gets to interview your “problem cases” and may see your more undisciplined troops commit “excesses”.
· The Col. Tim Collins case: Someone with a grudge could smear a commander through the media. The correction never carries the same weight as the original report.
For the Journalist
· Access to “the ultimate front row seat.”
· Long term exposure to the military. Staying with the same unit takes you past a “PR exercise.” You get to know the platoon/company you are with. This makes for great copy.
· Raises awareness of military issues and operations, minimises errors in reporting.
For the Journalist
· Freedom of movement restricted.
· Reports limited to what the reporter can see or hear. Mostly colour.
· Accusations of bias.
War Reporter versus Military Correspondents
Lastly, some thoughts on the distinction between reporters who cover the military and those who cover conflict – And a note on reporters versus correspondents.
Military Reporters and Correspondents In my view, military correspondents are specialists: authorities not only on policy matters but also on military strategy, tactics, techniques and procedures. They are often activists as well and can be partisans in the struggles that precede policy and doctrine formulation. British historian and journalist Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart (1895-1970) is still alternatively revered and loathed for the part he played (or didn`t) in the development of mechanised warfare during the 1920s and 1930s. At the time he was the military correspondent of a number of London daily newspapers. Reporters, by contrast, stress the facts and leave judgement to the reader and opinion to the editorial writers. Military reporters are far more common: non-specialist writers, often times disinterested, penning articles of interest to the general public. Their work is generally of the “he said, she said” variety and is often more social or political in content than military.
War Correspondents/Reporters War correspondents and reporters accompany military forces during wars and campaigns and file eyewitness accounts of what they have seen, heard, and in some instances, done.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was an outstanding example of a war correspondent. A British Army lieutenant in 1895, he joined Spanish forces fighting guerrillas in Cuba as a military observer and correspondent. Three years later he turned his experiences during the Malakand campaign in the North West Frontier district of now-Pakistan into the subject of his first book. Later that year he sought service in General Kitchener’s campaign for the reconquest of the Sudan, fulfilling the dual role of active officer and war correspondent. On the outbreak of the South African War in 1899, he went out as war correspondent for the London Morning Post. Within a month of his arrival, he was captured along with an armoured train when acting more as a soldier than as a journalist…” War correspondents, then, are participants in the events they write about. War reporters are not.
Depending on the circumstance war correspondents and reporters are entitled to protection upon capture under the Geneva Conventions as a lawful combatant. During World War Two, for example, South African journalists accompanying Commonwealth forces wore uniform and were entitled to use weapons for self defence. Carel Birkby, who covered the Somali and other campaigns for my Association, Sapa, wrote in the October 1980n edition of Armed Forces that South African correspondents were at first commissioned officers. “Paid by my civilian employers, I was to operate under the protective rank of captain under an arrangement dreamt up in Pretoria… Nevertheless the system (could) not work because war correspondents cannot be trammeled by rank of any kind. A mere captain cannot very well write dispatches calling a general a bloody fool.” Birkby later persuaded the authorities to “de-pip” them and adopt the Anglo-US system under which correspondents wore uniform when in operational areas (for their own protection under the Geneva Convention) but were distinguished only by cap badges bearing the letter C in gold on a green background and shoulder flashes reading ‘War Correspondent` in the same colour scheme. They took their rank from whomever they dealt with. So no private need to salute them, and they were not required to salute even a general – although often it was not only polite but politic to do so…”
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll leave it to each of you to draw your own further conclusions on what I have said here this afternoon. Any questions?
Contacting the author:
083 391 9999
Leon Engelbrecht, 35, is a senior reporter at the SA Press Association, concentrating on politics, defence and security. He also writes for the African Armed Forces Journal, is the Southern Africa correspondent for Defence Systems Daily and contributes to one of America`s premier defence journals, the Armed Forces Journal International. These latter activities are coordinated under the banner Defence THINK!
The author is an active member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In late 2000 he was asked to London to present a paper on the future of the South African defence industry. In June Leon was invited by the prestigious French National Higher Institute for Defence Studies` (IHEDN) to attend its 3rd Forum on the Continent Africa (FICA) in Paris where he participated in discussions on African peace and security.
Prior to pursuing a career in journalism, Leon read law but indefinitely suspended his studies when a job opportunity presented itself. Leon served for an extended period (five years) in various posts and units in the SA Army, being commissioned in the infantry as well as being awarded the Pro Patria and General Service medals for operational service and a unit as well as a Command commendation for dedication. After being trained as an infantry platoon leader at the Infantry School in 1987, Leon requested a secondment to the Southwest African Territory Force`s 101Bn at Ondangwa, where he served as an operations officer for 18 months. With Namibia`s independence in 1989 he was posted to Eastern Province Command in Port Elizabeth as SO3 Operations and later as Officer Instructor for a further 30 months.